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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

El Salvador Earthquake

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: India and El Salvador have both suffered devastating earthquakes in the past few weeks. And while India is getting much press attention, little note is being paid to the January thirteenth quake that left more than a million Salvadorans homeless and several hundred dead. In India, construction practices have come under scrutiny, and in El Salvador, relief workers cite deforestation and overdevelopment as causes of the extent of the damage. Michael Delaney, Director of Humanitarian Response and Special Projects for Oxfam, has just returned from El Salvador. He tells me that despite the TV images showing widespread destruction near the capital, San Salvador, rural areas were hardest hit.

DELANEY: Basically, the earthquake spread along socioeconomic lines. Many of the rural areas of El Salvador don't have the means to develop safe housing. Most of the housing is adobe, or what they call bahareci, which is basically a bamboo and mud hut. And these structures, put together with all of the assets that people have, just don't withstand the shock like this. And in fact, now we see that one in six Salvadorans are actually affected by this earthquake.

CURWOOD: After witnessing the ruins of this particular earthquake, is there a particular scene that sticks with you most?

DELANEY: On one day, we were traveling to regions of the country where Oxfam traditionally had not worked. On the last visit of the day, we actually entered a town in which every house in that town had been destroyed, completely destroyed. So not one person in that village and outskirts of the town had a house. It was quite shocking to see.

CURWOOD: I understand that there is a link between deforestation and some of the devastation in the earthquake. Were you able to observe any of that?

DELANEY: Yes, certainly. Deforestation has a long history in El Salvador. In fact, most of the natural forest growth had been destroyed in the earlier part of this century. There's only about two percent of the actual land mass that is covered by trees. This has to do a lot with the socioeconomic crisis in the country. Many people are poor, they need wood to cook their meals with. They have to live off the land, and put into that scenario, looking at the opportunity for cutting down branches off a tree and having a hot meal, or respecting the environment, a poor person really doesn't have much of an option.

CURWOOD: Tell me, what observations do you have about the role of development in the effects of natural disasters like earthquakes?

DELANEY: I think that we need to begin to apply some of the same standards and practices and education about housing that we do in developed countries, to areas in developing countries. People don't have the options. People don't have land. There's been many attempts at land reform in El Salvador. None of them have been carried forward fully. Many times just finding a space, whether it is on the side of a ravine or the side of a mountain, is enough for people to begin. So the issues of safety and zoning never come into play. Governments have not put forward any zoning rules, and the people are just looking for an opportunity to call home.

CURWOOD: Where are people going to rebuild? On these same mountainsides that are so dangerous?

DELANEY: Well, that's the question. What we noticed immediately after the earthquake was that, even in places where people's homes have been reduced to rubble, they wanted to stay there. You'll see plastic sheeting and bedspreads, sheets, covering small areas of what were their homes. People trying to stay where they were. Some areas were overrun by landslides. Those people don't have any place to go. They're probably going to end up in another precarious area.

CURWOOD: How will developers think differently in the future, do you think, about building in El Salvador in these areas?

DELANEY: Well, I think there's a lot of concerns that we're finally seeing come to light. I think that the earthquake really serves as an X-ray on some of the social, economic, environmental ills that have been existing. What we need to do is not just rebuild. But we have to reconstruct in a way that's going to take into account these environmental issues and put forward legislation that's going to help people build sustainable lives.

CURWOOD: What do you think it would take to establish environmental regulations?

DELANEY: Well, certainly, since the end of the civil war that the people faced throughout the eighties, there's been growing efforts to look at the environment as an issue and bring it forward. During the war, the issue of the environment was seen as an elite subject. However, now there is a growing movement in El Salvador for groups that have traditionally worked with community development, economic development, to take on the environment as the rallying cause. And I think that now more than ever there is an opportunity for environmental groups to get their message across and get it on the forefront.

CURWOOD: Michael Delaney is Director of Humanitarian Response and Special Projects for Oxfam in Boston. Thanks for joining us.

DELANEY: Thank you, Steve. It was a pleasure being here.

(Music up and under: David Darling and Ketil Bjornstad, "Wakenings")

CURWOOD: Just ahead: A trip to the backwoods of Idaho for a close-up look at the logging roads controversy. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under)



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